Thursday, 14 August 2014

Innovative Approaches to Justice: Magistrates' Court

by Sara Pheasant, Juris Doctor student, RMIT, 2014

Sara Pheasant shadowed Magistrate Ann Collins
Prior to my week of shadowing Magistrate Ann Collins, I was intrigued by models of therapeutic jurisprudence, but my understanding was largely theoretical. I applied for the shadowing opportunity as I was very interested in the reality of its application. Gaining an understanding of how it is currently being applied was invaluable. Indeed, I was not aware of the extent of the use of the therapeutic approach in the specialist jurisdictions of the Magistrates’ Court, and the potential for a more widespread application of some aspects.

The shadowing began with the frenetic pace of a day in the criminal jurisdiction of the Magistracy, with back-to-back summary mention hearings. This was a particularly useful way to contextualise and contrast the approach used in the specialist courts. It was also interesting to note the use of elements of the approach in this context, such as the clarity of communication to the accused. I was then privileged to shadow Ms Collins sitting in both the Koori Court in Broadmeadows and the Assessment and Referral Court (ARC).

I was struck by the whole experience of the roundtable environment of these specialist courts. I understood the idea of court-supported rehabilitation through a holistic approach to case management; however, I did not expect such a tangible sense of accessibility engendered by environmental choices, such as the Magistrate sitting at the table. The placement of an accused opposite the Magistrate created a directness of communication that noticeably shifted the focus to the accused and away from legal counsel. Further, it was remarkable to observe the sense of collective participation created by support workers sitting at the table and family invited to contribute to the process.

I also expected a sense of informality, but while there was certainly notably more of a relaxed air in the room, there was a formal air with a greater sense of focus, calmness and humanity. For example, it was delightful to see one accused's young child move quietly around the court and, when his dad's matter was called, seat himself comfortably at the table with caseworkers, legal representatives and the Magistrate. He sat colouring-in at the table during proceedings. Similarly, it was interesting to observe how different it felt to have a clerk announce to remain seated when the Magistrate entered. Also, to have the Police Prosecutor introduce himself using his first name, and to chat with an accused about the soccer. In ARC I could see that these small details made a huge difference towards the reassuring nature of the environment, and how effective this was for individuals already managing a range of difficult personal circumstances.

It was the 'humanity' of the proceedings that was the most striking difference of the therapeutic- model courts. Ms Collins spoke clearly and directly to the accused, ensuring each person understood the relevant legal process. She listened attentively, and, while expeditiously addressing pressing matters, conveyed an understanding of the person's particular struggles, strengths and supports. The genuine interest in an accused's welfare was tangible from all staff; what was notable was that this was not a 'soft' approach, it was focused and informative process with an emphasis on genuine engagement. This was also evident in the handling of procedural issues; for example, using flexibility in the timing of hearings if it was known that attendance could be difficult. This was bolstered by an emphasis on autonomy and self-directed participation.

Proceedings in both ARC and the Koori Court were in stark contrast to the traditional in respect of the genuineness of the communication. This was reflected in the role of respected persons in the Koori Court, who conveyed mindfulness of the importance of significant relationships and connections to community in supporting change. Overall, of great importance to my professional interest in therapeutic jurisprudence is the understanding that its application is not theoretical; indeed, it is realistic, human, practical, and profound. It was invaluable to observe the application of law grounded in people's lives.

~ Sara Pheasant, Juris Doctor student, RMIT, 2014.


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